Writer’s Guide to Horses Part X

Traveling with and by horse

Most modern horses don’t have to go from Point A to Point B on their own legs; that’s what horse trailers are for. But until the development of cars starting in the late 1800s, nearly everyone traveled on horseback or by carriage if they were going any great distance. Quite a turnabout- horses used to haul us around; now we haul them around.

(Cover image courtesy of pixabay)

Hauling or trailering a horse

I’ll only touch lightly on this topic, because most writers have no need of it. Entire books have been written on methods of transporting horses but most of us are writing about people who travel by horse, not with a horse. But it can be interesting, and I don’t want to get kicked out of Horse Addicts Anonymous because I didn’t pontificate enough on the subject.

Horse trailers are usually pulled behind a pickup truck, though some of the lighter ones are suitable for use in conjunction with SUVs, and larger ones can be pulled by a tractor-trailer. Horse vans are less common nowadays, but still occasionally used; it’s essentially a box truck fitted out for transporting horses.

Trailers can be made of steel or aluminum. All-steel construction was more common in the past; nowadays, trailers are more likely to have a steel frame and aluminum skin/panels. All-aluminum trailers are also becoming more common, because they don’t rust and weigh less than a steel trailer of the same size. The two basic shapes of trailer are bumper-pull (the hitch is actually attached to the frame of the truck) and gooseneck (hitch is bolted down in the cargo bed of the truck). Trailers can also be made specifically for horses (these usually have a skin of aluminum, pierced by square or rectangular windows) or for livestock (recognizable because of the long thin horizontal air vents along the sides). A stock trailer is usually an open box on the inside; you stick as many horses inside as can fit in that volume of space (depending on the trailer, that could be anywhere from two to eight). Purpose-built horse trailers are usually made for a specific number of horses- two or three is the most common, and manufacturers sell four, five, or six horse trailers. On the highest end of the scale, it’s possible to get a twelve horse trailer custom-made, if you have the money to buy it, a semi-truck to pull it, and a person with a commercial driver’s license to pilot the whole catastrophe. Horse trailers can also have living quarters for people, like someone smooshed a motor home and a horse trailer together.

Trailering a horse can be easy as pie, or quite tricky. Horses, as a prey animal, don’t like confined spaces, and have to be taught to stand in a trailer. The easiest way to do this is to feed the horse inside the trailer so it associates the trailer with food. Make sure the trailer is parked on level, stable ground, and preferably hitched to the hauling vehicle before you do this.

When pulling a trailer, go at a moderate speed; be gentle in braking, accelerating, and turning; and stop every couple of hours to give the horse a chance to rest and drink some water. Riding around in a trailer is hard work for the horse, and surprisingly noisy. There are lots of steel and aluminum parts clanking together, and as a metal box, everything tends to echo. Some people put a layer of wood shavings or straw on the floor to muffle sound and absorb urine, but this can make the trailer dusty.

It’s also common to give a horse some hay, tied up in a haynet where the horse can get to it without getting tangled in the net. Some horses love this; others ignore it completely. Some owners also wrap the horse’s legs with bandages, particularly when transporting more than one horse, to prevent injury. Other people choose not to; one of the great things about the horse world is that it’s fairly libertarian about horse care; as long as you’re taking care of the horse, your methods are nobody’s business but your own.

Anyway. That’s the primer on traveling with a horse; let’s move to traveling by horse.


Traveling on horseback

I’ve previously written about the effects of riding on the human body. A person who regularly travels on horseback is subject to all kinds of chronic issues, as well acute injury. But it was the fastest, most flexible way to travel until the early 1900s, when cars, bicycles, and planes began to be viable options.

A horse walks 3-5 miles per hour, trots 5-10 mph (but some horses can trot up to 30 mph), and gallops at 15-30 mph. The canter is a slower, more collected gallop, average speed about 10-20 mph. All of these speeds can vary drastically, based on the size of the horse, its length of stride, and the terrain. The record sprint speed is about 55 mph, but some horses have to be coaxed out of a walk.

Measuring a horse’s endurance is tricky. Horses are individuals, so the number of miles they can cover varies drastically based on- you guessed it!- the size of the horse, the length of its stride, its fitness, the terrain, and the load it’s carrying. I regularly ride a ten-mile loop in two hours without tiring the horse in question, but a very out-of-shape horse might be tired after half that, and a trained endurance horse might be ready to go another eighty miles in a day. Pony Express horses traveled at an average speed of fifteen miles an hour, and the riders would switch horses about every twenty miles. If you’re writing about cavalrymen or steppe cultures, that’s a good basic metric to use. A horse pulling a carriage can usually go further than a horse under saddle, because of the way the weight is distributed, but this also depends on the terrain.

The trot is not a particularly comfortable gait to ride, but it is most efficient for the horse if your character is traveling a long distance. Carriage horses are usually driven at a trot.  and draft horses are usually kept to a walk. Endurance riders usually alternate between a walk and a slow trot, average speed five miles per hour, for many miles at a time. A short endurance ride is 25 miles; some of the more extreme ones are a couple hundred miles and take place over a few days.

Characters who travel by horseback might use smooth-gaited horses, who typically substitute the trot for another gait of about the same speed. I’ve written about smooth-gaited horses in previous installments, so I’ll just say that a good gaited horse is damned comfortable to ride. The rider quite literally sits in the saddle and doesn’t move- no bumping up and down, no feeling like you’re going to slide off to the side. They’re not as maneuverable as normally-gaited horses, but if you’re traveling in a straight line, that doesn’t matter.

If your characters are travelling a long distance or have to carry a lot of provisions, they might use packhorses. Any horse, mule, or donkey can be used as a packhorse, as long as it’s fairly docile and willing to be led alongside another horse. This technique is called ponying. Packhorses wear a halter instead of a bridle and are often tied one behind the other in a line, so the rider has to hold only one lead rope. A packhorse can’t carry quite as much weight as a horse carrying a rider, because the pack is dead weight. A hundred pounds is usually enough for an average size horse, though a draft horse can carry more. More important than the amount of weight is the distribution of it. The packs must be level from side to side, and it’s best to put the heaviest items toward the front, over the horse’s shoulders. Make sure to tie down the packs so they don’t shift around.

pack mules

Image is from shutterstock

On the road

Caring for a horse on the trail requires a bit of forethought, and some specialized gear can be helpful. Horses drink 5-10 gallons of water a day even when they’re not working hard, and need to eat about 1% of their body weight in roughage, which takes time (ever try to eat a salad when you’re in a hurry?). A horse can live for short periods of time on only grain, which is easier to transport, but needs some grass or hay to keep its digestive system healthy. If you’re writing about a group of cavalry, give thought to how they will feed and water their horses. Even more importantly, how will they keep the horses from wandering? Most horses will stay together in a herd, but that herd can drift far away from the campsite in only a couple of hours. Horses can be tied to trees, picketed (tied to a rope strung between trees or posts), or hobbled to keep them nearby. A good catastrophe to inflict on your characters is to have a loud noise or a wild animal that scares all of the horses, causing them to break their picket lines and run off. Poof! Now your characters are stranded.

If your characters live in a more densely settled part of the world, there might be inns with stables attached. A night’s accommodation cost varying amounts depending on the place and time, so do a bit of research if you want to use specific details. Coaching inns were a prominent institution in Regency England, and have their roots in earlier eras. Similar inns existed in Europe and the colonies, but were a little less organized. For a fee, the inn would provide fresh horses or stable your horse, for the night or while you stopped for a meal. Feed for the horses cost extra, and patrons were expected to tip the ostlers who looked after the horses. Wealthy people often traveled with their own grooms to avoid this expense and because the ostlers’ skill with horses often varied dramatically.

Acquiring fresh horses at an inn could be logistically complicated. Often, the innkeeper would maintain a small number of horses that could be hired by anyone passing through. The canny traveler planned his route carefully and wrote to the innkeepers along the way to reserve the horses he would need. He might also hire postilions. These servants rode the carriage horses (left hand horse only), directing them in lieu of a driver, and could continue the journey along with whoever hired them, or return to the first inn with the innkeeper’s horses. Harnesses were specially made with a sort of saddle for postilions, since a normal harness has no place for a person to sit comfortably.

A traveler could also use his own horses, if he was going a short distance or willing to take few days to get wherever he was going. Upper class travelers had their own carriages- owning a carriage and not having to work for a living were signs that you had ‘arrived’ in high society- and tried hard to have matched pairs of horses, for the sake of aesthetics. Really rich people could board their own horses at inns along the main roads.

In England, one could also hire a seat aboard the mail coach. These seats filled up quickly, though, because the coaches operated on a regular schedule, with set fees, and were available to anyone who could afford them. During the early 1800s, the fee was usually a shilling per mile. Respectable ladies did not travel aboard the mail coach alone, but a working-class woman might do so. In general, ladies did not travel alone in any era; it wasn’t considered proper, and depending on the time and place, wasn’t particularly safe.


Types of horse-drawn vehicles

As a writer, you can usually get away with referring to a horse-drawn vehicle by one of a few broad categories: carriage, cart, wagon, or sleigh. Carriages in particular have a lot of variation in their types, because up until recently, they were custom-made for wealthier people, but most readers will understand what you’re talking about if you use one of the four categories.

Carriage has always been a higher class term. Carriages are used for moving people, never things. They are more likely to have four wheels instead of two, and to be drawn by more than one horse. This is not always the case- a two-wheeled, one horse gig is considered a carriage by most people, albeit one for the middle classes.

Carriages are more lightly built than most other horse-drawn vehicles, and have better suspension. Early suspension systems were comprised mostly of leather straps, from which the body of the carriage was suspended. I’ve never ridden in such a vehicle, but I imagine it would sway and rock quite a bit- not so pleasant if your character is prone to motion sickness. The introduction of leaf springs would have been a boon to people who disliked traveling. Leaf springs began appearing on carriages around 1750 in England, and quickly spread to the Continent, then to the various European colonies.

Four wheeled carriages are occasionally referred to as coaches. I’ve only ever seen that term applied to a boxy, closed-top vehicle, never to the more elegant varieties. Stagecoaches were used in Europe and America to transport passengers, along with the mail. Passengers could ride inside or- if they were very daring- on top of the coach. These seats were cheaper, but more precarious. People occasionally fell off or suffered from the cold- not that the inside was much warmer. A lot of passengers used heated bricks as footwarmers. Stagecoaches were usually pulled by six horses- a pair each of wheelers, swing, and leaders.

A more elegant carriage was commonly referred to as a chaise, and often pulled by four horses. These were privately owned by wealthy people, and more comfortable than a common coach. They could also be hired at the nearest coaching inn, if the person traveled only occasionally; these were called hack chaises, and were decorated more plainly. A privately owned chaise might have a coat of arms on the door panel, and be attended by servants in livery. There was usually a driver’s seat (box) above and in front of the passenger compartment and a platform at the back for baggage or for the footmen to stand on. Four people could sit comfortably in a chaise, as it had two seats, one facing forward and the other facing backward. There are varying accounts of which was the most prestigious seat, forward or backward.

A wagon (or waggon, as the Brits spell it) is a lower-class all purpose vehicle. It usually has four wheels, can be pulled by almost any number of horses, and can be used to transport people or things. The old name for a wagon is a wain, and the man who built and repaired it was called a wainwright. During the Middle Ages, wagons and carts were used for specific jobs. One did not transport firewood in a hay wagon, for example. In America, buckboards and Conestogas are the iconic wagons, because of their use by pioneers. A buckboard is usually an open vehicle, while a Conestoga wagon had a canvas cover held up by three or four hoops. I haven’t been able to find actual numbers, but I imagine that a lot of settlers used a Conestoga wagon to get to their new home, then pulled the cover off and used the wagon like a buckboard. They probably wouldn’t change the name of the vehicle in their conversations; it would just be called ‘the wagon’.

A cart is a two-wheeled wagon, usually used for transporting things. It’s also commonly used in modern times to denote a two-wheeled vehicle for toting people.

Most people have seen a sleigh, or illustrations of one. A sleigh is a vehicle for winter use; it has steel and wood runners instead of wheels, often (but not always) has no fixed top, and can be pulled by almost any number of horses. Passenger sleighs usually have a one or two horse hitch. Sleighs can also be used for transporting things, in which case they’re often called sledges, and are heavier built. Sledges also require more horses, but they’re sturdier than sleighs, which tend to drift around corners and can tip over. Sleighs and sledges both require a coating of snow on the ground before they can be used. In New England, home of the covered bridge, people would shovel snow onto the bridge so it could be used by sleighs. Presumably the bridge decking was spaced out slightly to allow the snowmelt to drip through, and keep the decking from rotting.


More specific carriages

There are a zillion sub-groups of carriage. Here are a few of the ones you’re likely to use in your writing:

A curricle is a two-wheeled open carriage pulled by two horses. It was very lightweight, carried only two or three people, and was very much a gentleman’s carriage- kind of like a modern sports car.

A gig is the poor man’s version of a curricle. It has two wheels and no top, but is pulled by one horse. This would be appropriate for a young upper-middle class man who had no family to transport. It has survived into modern times as the most common vehicle for pleasure driving. Modern gigs have rubber tires instead of the traditional iron tires.

A buggy is pulled usually by one horse and used to transport one or two people. My mother’s ancient doctor’s buggy has four wheels and a fixed top, but it can also describe a two-wheeled vehicle. This seems to be a very American term, and it doesn’t have an exact European equivalent- a gig is probably closest, in terms of cost, number of horses needed, and the class of people who would own one.

A sulky is used for harness racing. They’re usually made of fiberglass, and extremely lightweight. The driver’s feet rest in ‘stirrups’, loops of steel or fiberglass built into the shafts. A modern sulky is equipped with bicycle tires.

sulky image

(A racing sulky, probably drawn by a Standardbred)

A barouche is a four-wheeled open carriage drawn by a pair of horses. It sometimes has a folding top that can give the forward-facing passengers a bit of shelter. I guess the backward-facing passengers were out of luck if it rained. A variation on the barouche is the landau, which can be drawn by two or four horses and has two folding tops that meet in the middle of the passenger compartment.

The phaeton is recognizable because of its height. It was a very sporty carriage, lightweight and delicate. It has four wheels and the body of the carriage can be five feet off the ground- easy to tip over. It was usually pulled by two horses.

Another iconic carriage is the hansom cab, which became popular during the Victorian era. A hansom is a two-wheeled, one horse vehicle, designed so that the driver sits above and behind the passengers, giving the passengers a mostly unobstructed view of the road ahead. The horse’s reins are drawn up and over the passenger’s box to the driver. Hansoms were frequently used as hack vehicles, like a modern taxicab. It would be very odd for a family to own one for their own use. A cabriolet is similar to a hansom.

The Victorian era also saw an increase in the use of horse-drawn omnibuses in the city. These lumbering vehicles looked like large stagecoaches and could carry up to thirty people. Passengers could sit inside or on top. Some omnibuses had a narrow staircase on the outside; others were equipped only with a ladder. Respectable ladies tried not to ride on top of omnibuses- underdrawers were not in fashion until later in the 1800s, and anyone who happened to look up as a lady was ascending the ladder would get quite a view!


Traveling catastrophes

The point of a book is to dump your characters in a situation and see how they get out of it, right? Traveling by horse can offer all sorts of opportunity for disaster. Horses can go lame, lose their shoes, fight with each other- trying to drive a pair of horses that don’t like each other is a pain in the neck- or be subject to illness. Saddles can slip; and stirrup leathers, girths, reins, or any part of the harness can break. Carriage wheels are made of wood, and can shatter. Axles, shafts, and trees/poles can also break. And just like traveling in a car, road conditions might not be ideal, giving you, the writer, a chance to have the carriage slide off the road or a similar disaster. Use your imagination; traveling by horse involves so many moving parts that the possibilities for plot-advancing disasters are almost endless!


  1. “Often, the innkeeper would maintain a small number of horses that could be hired by anyone passing through.” I have wondered how this Hertz for Horses service actually worked….how did the horses get back to their base location?

    1. That was usually the job of the postilions or other servants; once the horses were unhitched at the next inn, they would ride one and pony the rest back to the starting point.

    2. Same way rental cars and trailers do now: you rented them out to the people going back the other way, if there was enough traffic. If there wasn’t enough paying traffic, you had to pay your horsehandlers to deadhead back just to return the inventory….. which meant the rent was higher. Look at the rates on U-Hauls one way from CA to TX vs one way from TX to CA for a real world current example.

  2. Blake, there is/was a significant size difference between a buckboard and a full up Conestoga wagon. A Conestoga was usually pulled by a 4 mule or 2-4 oxen team due to weight (If I remember correctly, it was around 1300 pounds empty). They had three or five bows for the canvas top, and were very heavily built. There is an actual unrestored one in Panhandle, Texas in a small museum that we got a look at.

    1. This – and the Conestoga and freight wagons used in the east on improved roads, and on the Santa Fe trail (which was a pretty level prospect) were usually too large and too heavy for emigrant traffic on the California-Oregon Trail – a trail which covered much in the way of mountains, desert and river/creek crossings. Most emigrants used an ordinary, four-wheeled farm wagon – several, if they were well-to-do enough.(And emigrant wagons were usually pulled by 2-3 yoke of draft oxen – horses were too frail and too valuable. Some parties relied on mules, which moved faster on the whole, but were vulnerable to being stolen by the local indigenous inhabitants. And when it came down to it, you could always eat the ox, whereas there was some prejudice about chowing down on mule or horse au poivre.)

      1. And while horses are faster, oxen are generally more stable and will pull with less upset – which is why the early explosives were moved by ox rather than horse.

        The downsides to oxen are that on a bad day they’ll be sullen and grumpy and slow down to… about 2 mph. And a good day, spry and full of vigor they’ll get all the way up to… about 2 mph. And while you can move a horse to a new position in the team or team with a new horse… the ox grew up with the pulling buddy. If one dies, you do not get one new ox to make up a new team. You now have AN ox, and may need to obtain a new team. Fwiw, an ox can learn as many commands as a horse – but the teaching methods change some. Oxen might seem slow on the uptake, but what an ox learns, it learns “forever.” And just exactly that way, too. In modern analogy consider the horse as the gasoline vehicle – adaptable and fast. The ox is more a diesel – more about power (see: starting torque…) than speed.

    2. Thanks for the correction, OldNFO. That’s what I get for looking at photos instead of the real thing; the scale of each vehicle doesn’t come through in 2-D.

  3. A note on steel horse trailers… folks who haven’t pulled ’em don’t have a clear idea how heavy they are. I have an all-steel 4-horse stock trailer (which I use for hauling just about everything BUT horses), and it weighs 4000 pounds on the nose; loaded, it takes a fairly hefty truck to pull uphill. Avoid single-axle trailers, unless you like having it bounding and swaying behind you, or enjoy astonishing adventures in the event of a flat. Also, most stock trailers come with stall dividers, tho more often than not they get removed and misplaced.

    1. They are heavy….. which doesn’t stop them from having enough sail area to be moved by a good breeze, in which case that weight will move you too.

  4. Re: Sledges

    My understanding that the technique was used at times on things other than snow. Moving something a very short distance, or much heavier than could be handled by any handy wagon. Snow has nice properties for sliding friction, but more force can work with worse materials. Perhaps more of a heavy construction thing than a real transport thing. And the draft animals would need a lot of rest, or a lot of animals compared to to moving the same thing by wagon.

    See also the travois.

    Road condition matters.

  5. I had to do a bit of research on the coach lines in the trans-Mississippi west, as I had my travelers go from California to St. Louis via the Butterfield stage line in the late 1850s. (Mark Twain has a wonderful description of going in the opposite direction on another coach line five years later!)
    One of the things I discovered was that in rougher sections of the trail and where the roads were spectacularly unimproved, passengers were transported in a vehicle called a “mud wagon” – which was a lightweight passenger coach with a canvas top and sides on a rigid frame. Except for stops to change the horses and let passengers grab a bite to eat and relieve themselves, the Butterfield line coaches ran day and night – twenty-two days on schedule. Imagine trying to sleep in a jolting coach or mud-wagon, sitting upright if you were on a sold-out leg of the route – for three weeks straight! It was the fastest transportation across the West before the Civil War, but it would have been an absolutely brutal trip for passengers.
    At least the drivers were spelled at intervals along the way.

    1. Which Afghan war?

      More seriously- no, I don’t know much about them, only that they were a bunch of guys with lots of military training and not much horse experience, who managed to rectify that lopsidedness fast enough to be useful.

      Can you suggest any sources on the subject?

      1. I don’t know any ready resources – was hoping you might be able make my research easier. 🙂 I kinda doubted that we had enough day cowboys in uniform and was wondering where they found the expertise, OR the livestock.

        1. The only tidbit I recall was that one of the bits of foreign aid we sent the Afghans in the earlier, anti-Soviet adventure was Missouri mules. A big improvement in load-carrying ability over the donkeys the Afghans were using.

          1. Doug Stanton’s _Horse Soldiers_ is one possibility, albeit a little sensational. But cavalry have always been sensational, at least in their own minds. 😉

  6. Much depends on the horse collar! The Romans had one based on the ox-collar, and the horses couldn’t pull as much that way. Also, rigid collars mean the horse doesn’t strangle when pulling hard. This affects the carts and wagons.

  7. I do love competence porn and this post w/comments makes me one happy little camper this morning. Good day to all and thanks so very much for this site.

  8. In the recent Paradise fires, someone I know noted that a lot of horse owners let their horses loose—and then tried to drive off in their cars through the flames, sometimes getting into the death traps of the narrow roads blocked with damaged cars. She wondered why they didn’t ride one of their horses out—even bareback, they probably had a better chance than dealing with the car traffic.

    I can’t imagine it would be easy (panicked horse in burning forest, yikes), but it was a good point.

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